Last year I read The Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé. It’s the story of a Paris bookshop whose owners decide to take the high road and sell only ‘good books.’ A secret committee of writers create a list of ‘the best books ever.’ These books are not best sellers, and are instead those wonderful little gems we readers dream of finding. Anyway, after reading A Novel Bookstore, I wanted that list. Unfortunately the list was fictional but that didn’t stop the author from dropping some names throughout the pages, and I was right there taking notes. One of the titles was Madame Solario, which I read and enjoyed. But there were other names too–some I’d never heard of. One of these names was French novelist, Christian Gailly.
There are a few of Gailly’s novels translated into English, so I actually had a choice. I selected Red Haze for its plot (and look at that great cover), but I really wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this novel as Gailly is known as a minimalist. At 108 pages (and that includes several double-sided black or near black pages), they weren’t joking about minimalism. My copy is translated by Brian Evenson and David Beus.
The novel is narrated by unemployed biologist-would-be-novelist, Sylvère Fonda–a man who gets mixed up in an incident involving a man he knows called Lucien. I was intrigued by the plot, and here’s the opening paragraph:
A rake, that’s what he was, a lovelace. We get this odd word from a character living in a novel entitled Clarissa Harlowe, the work of English novelist Samuel Richardson, the son of a cabinet-maker who became a printer before turning to writing. But above all the name marries love to lace, net, snare.
It didn’t bother me that he slept around, he never pursued my wife, but still, I would often tell myself: one day unlike the others he’ll run into a husband worse than the others, he’ll run into trouble. I often thought this. Well, I was wrong, it was a woman worse than the others, here’s what happened.
After that opening, I was hooked into the tale.
Lucien is a womaniser who attacks a woman named Rebecca Lodge; she fights back and then runs away. Sylvère, who’s a stutterer, becomes involved and simultaneously loses his speech impediment when he finds the wounded Lucien. Lucien gives Sylvère the task of tracking down Rebecca and apologising for his act. The impact of the incident leaves a deep impression on Sylvère, but Sylvère’s wife, Suzanne doesn’t understand his fixation. And she certainly doesn’t approve of her husband’s trip to Copenhagen to track down Rebecca Lodge.
There are no pleasant aspects to this lean and mean tale of obsession and revenge. All of the relationships are abnormal and twisted, and I can’t say more without giving away too many aspects of the plot. Is Lucien’s desire to apologise sincere? Isn’t what he did a little beyond apology? And given how Rebecca retaliated, isn’t an apology rather beside the point. What about Sylvère’s motives? Why on earth would any sane person want to get mixed up in what happened? Sylvère doesn’t even like Lucien and admits that he is “not my friend, just an experiment in hatred.” Let’s just say that Sylvère is playing with fire when he tracks down Rebecca. I should make it clear that while I write these questions, it’s not because I had a problem with the credibility of what happens, but rather I am chewing over the destructive and self-destructive nature of the characters. This is in many ways a haters’ triangle–an inversion of the familiar lovers’ triangle.
The details of the story of what happened between Lucien and Rebecca are not immediately apparent; they are teased out over time, and I found myself re-reading past passages in light of newly discovered information. The author has a deliberately recursive style–with old information repeated while tagging on other sometimes startling information. We are told just a fragment of an incident, for example, and then the incident will be repeated with additional details. This style frustrated me at first until I got used to it and could see just what the author was up to. And while Gailly’s style may be minimalism, it’s minimalism inside a maze, so the text becomes a puzzle to be solved and understood. Gailly is compared by critics to Nabokov. I’ll leave that for others to decide.
The narrator, Sylvère also consciously adopts that recursive style. At one point, he’s tells a dark, disturbing tale about something he witnessed, but towards the end of the book he adds just one line that monumentally changes the story he’s told before. This is brilliant, but I won’t write the quotes as this would ruin the impact for any future reader. It’s through this approach that we, as readers, grasp the power of control when it comes to just how much story is told or withheld, and of course, Sylvère has been torturing us with this since page one:
This repetition is deliberate. I entreat my future editor, if one is found to publish me, not to omit it. In music in the past, they repeated what the listener liked to hear. Me, I repeat what the reader hates to read. My goal is to torment his mind. I want him to tremble. I’m dreaming. To keep him from sleeping at night. The famous struggle against the dark. And then also because I think this scene, in its complete, family version, is infinitely more important than the little story I’m telling you, but since I’ve come this far, I’m going to finish it, before a new slaughter starts, so let’s hurry.
This is an infinitely nihilistic tale, and all the characters are either unpleasant or unsympathetic, so the relationships they share aren’t exactly healthy. The story’s dark twists combined with its sense of impending doom probably explain why I enjoyed it. I am, however, used to meatier fare, and to be honest, I finished this feeling a bit cheated and wishing it had been about 200 pages longer. As fate would have it, after finishing Red Haze, I picked up another novel that was so horribly bloated, I unexpectedly found myself preferring Gailly’s style, and I have a feeling that I could grow to appreciate Gailly more with subsequent novels. I’ll be ready for him next time….